Bullying climates at schools may be linked with lower test scores

Bullying can affect a student’s academic performance, but a school’s bullying climate may be linked with lower overall test scores, a study finds.

The study, presented recently at the American Psychological Assn.'s recent annual convention in Washington, D.C., surveyed 7,304 ninth-grade students and 2,918 teachers who were randomly chosen from 284 high schools in Virginia. Students and teachers were asked about incidents of bullying and teasing at the school. Ninth-grade students were chosen because researchers felt this first year of high school was a critical adjustment period, and because poor test scores in this grade may be linked with a higher drop-out rate.

In the study, bullying was defined as using strength or popularity to deliberately injure, threaten or embarrass another person, and that harassment can be verbal, physical or social. Two students close in strength who argue are not considered bullies.

In schools that had a more intense bullying atmosphere, passing rates on standardized tests in such subjects as algebra, Earth science and world history were 3% to 6% lower. Researchers controlled for a school’s percentage of minority students, the number of students getting meals free or at a reduced price and school size.


“This difference is substantial because it affects the school’s ability to meet federal requirements and the educational success of many students who don’t pass the exams,” said study co-author Dewey Cornell of the University of Virginia in a news release.

While noting that the results reflect correlation, not cause, the authors offered some possible explanations for the link: Students who attend schools with high bullying rates may not feel as connected to academics because they’re worried about the harassment, and teachers may be distracted by having to discipline students, leaving less time for lessons.

Cornell added that he doesn’t think bullying is any worse now than it has been in previous years, but media attention has put the issue in the spotlight. Recently, 14-year-old singer Rebecca Black (of the viral song “Friday”) reported that being teased at school prompted her decision to be home schooled.